A story by Cecilia Gigliotti, December 2019
Cecilia Gigliotti is a writer, musician, and travel photographer. Much of her work deals with pop culture, childhood trauma, and things famous people have said when they thought no one was listening. She holds the MA in English Literature from Central Connecticut State University, where her poem “Igor Stravinsky Awaits the Arrival of Dylan Thomas” won Blue Muse magazine’s 2018 Leslie Leeds Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in publications including the Atticus Review, Route 7 Review, Outrageous Fortune. Transformations, New Rivers Press’s Visiting Bob: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of Bob Dylan, and the forthcoming DoveTales: Writing for Peace. A New England native, she currently resides in Berlin, Germany, where she writes for the Galatea app.
This is a love story within a love story. The inner story concerns a person; the outer, a city. Both stories have taken time. Neither is finished. Nestled within, at the halfway mark, is an interlude like the orchestral entr’acte of a sung drama. Best viewed from a velvet box.
The outer story is of the sprawling British capital, and it contains everything else. My love affair with London is both acutely emotional and highly cerebral. Since the Christmas season of 2014 I have found myself there constantly, excavating its layers of lovely and terrible touchstones. Blood and beauty. In London I am flung open, unstoppable even to myself. My latest and longest sojourn took place in the fall of 2018, a semester of postgraduate literature studies at a university twenty minutes north of King’s Cross by train. It may have ruined me for any other city. And every grand performance demands a grand setting.
The inner story, like the rest of my life, is set in motion by music.
The Ukulele Society met on Wednesday nights. After one September session I noticed her heading toward the shuttle, bound for the other side of campus. My side. I fell in step and introduced myself: emboldened by my enthusiasm for this new environment, neurotic but gregarious by sheer virtue of my Americanness.
Our names rhymed. Our Christian names, that is. She went by a nickname which I first called “thoroughly modern,” then amended to “thoroughly retro” at her self-aware insistence. Broadway references notwithstanding, this nickname also meant I now knew a real-life person to match every character in e. e. cummings’s poem “Maggie and Milly and Molly and May.” In the twelve years since I had read it, only Molly and May’s stanzas came to mind. I would need to fill in the gaps.
At our next meeting I learned that she studied design and was on the cusp of twenty-one, two years my junior. Crucially, she adored the Beatles, my prerequisite for human decency; to illustrate this point, I had spent the previous winter in the company of a dashing New York actor until his claim that the Beatles were inferior to Led Zeppelin all but broke the deal.* Milly and I could collectively strum half their catalogue, starting with “And I Love Her.”
Her favorite artist, she concluded after some meditation, was Paul Simon. Given my name, that point needed no elaboration. The overlap in our tastes was promising.
A series of outings at the campus pub, post-Ukulele Society or on lighter homework nights, sustained the musical dialogue. Sometimes the Society would reconvene there after a jam, but we two would invariably outlast. In the half-light, amidst undersized tables, fluorescent flickering screens, radio of fluctuating quality, and other conversational detractors, I observed the fine skeletal structure in her cheeks and nose, the eyes at once peaceful and piercing, manifestations of her South African heritage though the charmingly clipped voice betrayed English birth. Her familiarity with Bob Dylan was limited, so I never articulated how I sensed the ghost of electricity howling in the bones of her face, as dictated in “Visions of Johanna.”
No ghost inhabited my face, for there were no prominent bones to house it. Early chemotherapy, part of a sweeping treatment plan for a natal case of bilateral retinoblastoma, had left my cheeks smooth and soft. It might have been a swap with Mother Nature: she took the child’s innocence, I kept the child’s face.
But that was all for a later discussion. Who could waste precious pub time on infant trauma when so much remained to be said about opera? Milly and I discussed opera at great length. Our mothers had passed down their passion: hers was partial to Puccini, mine to Verdi. Wagner, we agreed, was not to be abided.
Eventually we paid our dues in louder environments. Mid-October, we prepared for a rave at the campus nightclub with a soundtrack I expected to be energizing; but our self-conscious shuffle to Hall & Oates, glancing at each other and then away, put me at a loss. What did a phrase like “You make my dreams come true” mean here?
Fortunately, the club loosened us up. Toward the end of the night, after belting out “Valerie” at the top of our lungs and tiring of the protracted exposure to people, we were nearly separated returning from the restrooms. I reached out and pulled her through the crush of dancers. Holding her hand made me momentarily forget my exhaustion.
The first night of November I coaxed her out to hear me at an open mic. I craved performance and an audience. Maybe I had a ghost or two inside me after all. I advised her to keep an ear out for the last of three songs in a meticulously curated set. Perched on a stool, ukulele on my knee, I strummed the opening chords of the tune I consider to be Simon & Garfunkel’s finest. The room was long, but the listeners sat close enough that I could pick her out as I began, “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together.”
God knows I hadn’t crossed an ocean to look for America–if anything, I’d come to escape it. I might have been looking for home. Whatever my destination, she understood.
Enter the entr’acte: The following Saturday I ventured to Tate Modern with a beloved professor from the States who had swung into London for a conference. A slew of repairs and closures on the Underground scuttled regular routes and threw commuters into confusion. Trains spilled over with passengers. Certainly no place for the socially anxious.
Nightfall, within minutes of the last northbound service to Cambridge. I squeezed into a Piccadilly line car at South Kensington and, in a feat of handicapped peripheral vision, noticed a young man nearby. As the crowd shifted, I moved down the car for a better glimpse from a distance. Tall. Dark hair. Large glasses. An instrument, probably brass, on his back. More boxes checked off my list than I was prepared to encounter on the Tube. My attention was caught–and returned. At the next transfer of bodies, he snagged a free seat directly beside where I stood.
“What’s the instrument?” I asked before I could lose the nerve.
“French horn,” he replied, a bit sheepishly.
“Neat–I play the ukulele, but it’s back at school.” I trembled. English. Good God, here I had struck up a conversation with an attractive English musician who appeared not far from my age. Granted, I could smile unabashedly thanks to my undoubtedly superior teeth. But engaging such a stranger in small talk? Who was I?
Upon reaching King’s Cross, I had no clue how to go about suggesting an extension of our stilted, shy exchange. So we traded wishes of luck on our instruments. I stepped out and turned to find him wistfully watching me go. My heart might very well have leaped out toward him. Fate shrieked in my ear like a Greek chorus. I tingled from head to toe all the way back to my campus, my dormitory, my bed.
Naturally, my “thoroughly retro” friend got wind of this extraordinary incident straightaway (well, right after my mother). I reenacted my misfortune from across a round pub table, almost toppling my Merlot with every feverish gesticulation. I had found a purpose, I told her, a romantic purpose, an impulse fit for Don Quixote. She must have wondered how she had wound up chained to this madwoman; still, she provided emotional support as I embarked on several ill-fated sprees through Chelsea, haunted the Royal College of Music, attended concerts in hopes of a second sighting of him. And, when I was through tilting at windmills, she patiently endured the laments of my own folly. “Remember,” she offered up, “you chatted to a stranger on the Tube and it worked. That’s quite an accomplishment.”
It occurred to me that our pub dates could have happened anywhere–she was what mattered.
Hence my invitation for her to join me on a pre-Christmas trip to Barcelona. A whirlwind three weeks of itinerary arrangements later, we landed in mild weather under azure skies, ready for everything and nothing. Our Airbnb was tucked into an alley which opened onto the square of the sublime Sagrada Familia. Of the two generous beds, one proved so much more comfortable that we elected to share it; and we lay, summoning energy for our preliminary explorations, giggling at our own wordplay.
Bohemian Rhapsody, which I’d seen twice by then, had inspired me not only to take Queen more seriously than ever before but to reevaluate the restrictions and intersections of my own identity. Back at the flat the first evening, cross-legged on the white bedspread, we sipped homemade sangria–which we’d rechristened “mangria” for our substitute of mango–and listened to A Night at the Opera. She had known the album from childhood; I had discovered nine of its twelve tracks within the past month. Every lyric and nuance was equally ingrained. “Take care of those you call your own,” we sang, “and keep good company.”
There is a moment in that song, at roughly the 1:17 mark, which to this day undoes me. For all my studies and analyses of music, I continue to feel myself inadequate in describing it, but if I may try: the three-part harmonized guitar, responding to the voice in the middle of the bridge, lasts hardly a measure–a second at most–and feels like a hiccup of the heart. At once it recalls the sensation of this girl’s hand in mine, the boundless undimmed hope of some future between us, something less fraught with distance and fear. Ironic, given the song’s cynicism, its bleak humor–enriched by, of all instruments, a ukulele.
But perhaps it was really A Day at the Races which summarized us best. She was a steady four-four tempo, like her uncontested favorite, “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy.” I was a dizzy three-quarter time, like “The Millionaire Waltz.” Dreamy, disoriented, approaching delirious.
For five nights our routine consisted of filling notebooks (words for me, sketches for her), absorbing old broadcasts of The Goon Show and new episodes of Drunk History, saying goodnight, and slipping side by side into sleep after another onslaught of adventure. Even as I drifted off, the songs scrambled my mind, announcing the advent of something new in me, something uncontrollable if I wasn’t careful.
I controlled it. I funneled it into her Christmas gifts. A Spike Milligan memoir I’d unearthed during my volunteer shift at the lending library near campus. A postcard attempting to describe the gravitas of an international friendship. Inadequate once again, but the best I could do.
The New Year drew us deeper into each other’s worlds. Over two visits to her neck of the woods in January, I roamed the ruins of Kenilworth castle and Coventry cathedral, dined with her exceptionally welcoming family, let her initiate me into gin-and-tonics at the local five-hundred-year-old pub, played the little-used upright piano in her parlor, and shared her narrow bed in a copper-colored room, hyper-attuned to where our hands lay. The weekend she stayed in the Little Venice flat I’d rented for the month before my return stateside, we wandered through Maida Vale, closed a café with lingering brunch conversation, made and cancelled plans to go out, and harmonized our voices and ukuleles long into the night. I played “Love of My Life” in plucked arpeggiations and dared not meet her eyes.
Sunday afternoon of that weekend found us out in Pinner, where she’d grown up. Having tried and failed to slip into a small museum fifteen minutes before closing, we ambled across hectic intersections up to the hilly street that had served as the first backdrop of her life. I stood among the weeds of the overgrown garden that had once been hers, staring out into infinite green. What unsettling affection came over me then, as this person’s history unfolded around me.
Late that night, after surely frightening her with the rush of my own bizarre history, I saw her off at Paddington station. Under what circumstances we would meet next I hadn’t an inkling; I only knew it was a matter of when and not if. She had hardly to turn her back and hop a descending escalator before I began to quake on my feet, to sob freely. There she went, all levelheaded British cool, and I was an American tempest.
We have kept in touch despite a difference of five hours. It is hard. I hear and answer her voice with painful infrequency. An attempt to maneuver two lives into convergence almost never succeeds. Fate almost always prevails.
But I can be patient. Fate, or time, or Brexit, will tell when I get back. There is too much left to learn in that place. The torch I carry for London blazes its brightest yet, as I anticipated from the outset. What I could not have predicted is the kindling added by this profound communion with a soul that burns like mine.
Recently I pinpointed the cummings stanza:
milly befriended a stranded star
whose rays five languid fingers were
If I am the star, all too happy to be stranded in a place I loved, how much happier would I be to be stranded anywhere on earth so long as Milly has befriended me?
* He and I are good friends now, and I have developed a modicum of tolerance. Still, you’ll get on much better with me if you like the Beatles, or at least if you say you do.